Expat Interviews: Living in Japan and China

Working in Japan and ChinaAs any former expat knows, going home is often the most challenging part of spending time abroad. People at home often just don’t understand – or don’t care about – the time you spent abroad. When I came back to Portland after living in Paris (and when I took a long trip to China last spring) I was lucky enough to meet people here who had lived abroad. Drew Lundsten is my neighbor here in Portland, and he also happens to have lived and worked in both Japan and China. He agreed to share some of his experiences about Japan, China and being an expat.

Why did you decide to go to Japan/China? When did you go? How old were at the time? What did you family and friends think?

I first went to Japan during the summer between my junior and senior years in college, which was 1993 and I was 22. Initially I was to go for the entire summer, along with another classmate, to work for a company owned by an alumnus as a kind of student-culture-work exchange which they hosted every summer. This was a few years into Japan’s decades-long recession, and just a couple of weeks before our departure the company decided they couldn’t continue the program. So, with my interest in the culture piqued but no alternate plans or job for the summer, a friend teaching English in Japan convinced me to go anyway, and all I had to do was figure out how.

I worked on campus for the first half of the summer to make enough money to get to Japan, and then the second half I taught my friend’s classes (all it takes is showing up!) and stayed in his apartment while he was traveling back to the US. I had no Japanese training beforehand, and was literally struggling to pronounce numbers and phrases on the flight from Los Angeles to Osaka International. (this was shortly before Kansai International opened.)

My family and friends were generally excited for me to have this opportunity, and supportive – if I wasn’t going to get a serious job, at least I should be having some sort of adventure. I had already spent an academic year abroad in the UK, so I was more or less comfortable navigating the world on my own, but the language, culture, population density, geography, just about everything in Japan was a constant surprise. Many days I felt a sense of accomplishment at simply existing – finding transportation, managing a meal, attempting communication. I bonded with the family of the yakitori restaurant downstairs from my apartment, and had a variety of adventures while using my two-week Japan Rail pass to traverse the whole of the country. At the end of my stay I was very definitely changed by the experience, and determined to return after graduation.

It took me a couple of years, but I did study Japanese, graduate, and get a position with the JET Program, teaching English alongside a real English teacher in the remote mountains of Akita Prefecture in northern Japan. Again, it seemed like the requirement for an English teacher was to simply show up and speak English. I know now that many other expats, with considerably higher qualifications, struggled to make a living doing this in bigger cities; as for my experience, the security of my “residency” in this program, and the remoteness of my posting, gave me the freedom to study the spoken and written language very diligently, and the opportunity to immerse myself in the culture without having much communication with other native English speakers. After my first and last year teaching English, I got a job doing research in my academic field in suburban Tokyo, for a Mitsubishi group company.

Working in a large Japanese organization was another cultural adventure – wearing the corporate jumpsuit, morning calisthenics, eating in the company canteen, and of course plenty of boozy karaoke outings. I deepened my knowledge of Japanese language and culture and eventually found a job with a Silicon Valley manufacturer, putting my technical background and language to work selling their semiconductors in the Japanese market.

After four years of living and breathing Japanese, I had grown aware of the apartness that many expats encounter, certainly in a place as homogeneous as Japan. Eventually, as the Japanese recession wore on and the dot-com boom got going back home, I figured I couldn’t make the kind of professional progress I wanted if I stayed abroad. I returned to the US in the fall of 1999.

My experience in Japan was useful professionally, and I had several unique opportunities to contribute, but eventually China became the focus of all manufacturing enterprises. I had studied Mandarin to prepare for a vacation to Beijing in 2004, and starting in 2005 I began visiting the Shenzhen-based subsidiary my employer acquired. With this focus on developing the capabilities of the Chinese group (while whittling away at the US workforce), I eventually finagled a posting to the Shenzhen office in 2007.

My third trip on the culture-shock roller coaster was pretty tame. Shenzhen was already a very developed city, with English everywhere and smartphones available to help me translate what I couldn’t understand; my work and social life included a vast array of international expats and diverse Chinese peoples all blended together, without the overwhelming density of Tokyo or Shanghai. I had visited a dusty Chinese factory town previously, in 1997, but urban Shenzhen life was nothing like it, and proximity to Hong Kong and the sea made even the weather great. The pollution endured by inland residents wasn’t yet affecting me. At age 36, I had packed all my possessions into storage, rented out my condo in San Diego, and planned to be in China for another long haul – I figured it would be five years or more.

But mid-2008, with the US housing market beginning to melt down and recession looming, my employer returned me to the US. I considered figuring out how to stay in China, but I had also endured a respiratory infection that sent me to the hospital, and had observed many older expats with breathing problems or other health challenges. I was also becoming aware of a certain bureaucratic disregard and callousness in China’s relentless property boom – disenfranchised farm workers moved off ancestral land to make room for condos which would always be unaffordable by the previous residents (but still cheap for companies needing to house their overseas visitors).

In the end, I chose clean air and water in Oregon over the pace and intrigue of coastal China, and that brought my year in Shenzhen to a close.

Describe how foreign language skills were useful in your everyday life while abroad. Did you speak Japanese before you went abroad? How did you improve, what happened to let you know that you were improving?

For Japanese, I started with the typical phrasebooks and then university coursework. The writing system was still a challenge until I used some of the textbooks that elementary school students use to practice characters. Mostly, I needed to practice every day and leverage my immersion in the language. It was pretty difficult until I was actually living and working in the language.

For Mandarin, I used the Pimsleur audio series and gained some capability in the spoken language before a vacation to Beijing to put it into practice. I also benefited from the similar use of characters in Japanese, and the helpfulness of the many English-speaking Chinese people.

What were some of the most interesting events / cultural lessons that happened when you were abroad?

Culturally, I participated a lot more in Japan’s festivals and traditions than I did during my shorter stay in China. I think my most “interesting” event was getting bound up in a fundoshi (loincloth) and making an almost-nude midnight temple visit in snow and rain during the lunar New Year in early February. At midnight a stick of incense is thrown out and the person (man) who catches it gets some large cash prize. There are also decoys thrown out, so the crowd turns into a kind of raging tribal melee, and foreigners were definitely not allowed to compete in earnest. Only a handful of people went to the hospital the year we took part, I was told.

What are some of the interesting stories you have? What were some of the biggest challenges living abroad?

My biggest challenge probably came in the form of my reduced agency as an expat, specifically in trying to find housing in Japan. I barely cooked, and had few possessions, but had encounters with a kind of xenophobia or ethnocentrism that were new to me. I found an apartment I was interested in renting, but the owner refused to lease it to a foreigner, citing the difficulty of getting it clean after all the crazy things we foreigners cooked. I also had a woman (a sort of janitor at one of my remote rural schools) tell me that foreigners eating corn flakes for breakfast was like a dog eating kibble. I don’t even like breakfast cereal, but still I was offended!

Of course I was also aware of the million or so ethnic Koreans born in Japan, without Japanese nationality, who struggle with acceptance in the only society they have known, so my challenges were obviously minor by comparison, and I knew it at the time. I think it did open my eyes to racism and ethnocentrism in a way I hadn’t felt previously, growing up in a homogeneous rural Midwestern town and then moving to Los Angeles for college.

Could you talk a little bit about working in a Japanese company?

There are many ways this experience stays with me, but certainly the homogeneity still strikes me twenty years later. The phrase “deru kugi wa utareru” comes to mind – The stake that sticks out gets hammered down. This is really a great cultural difference from our unique-snowflake culture in postmodern America. At age 24 it seemed really confining and claustrophobic, but at 44 I can now see some of the benefits – everyone had a place, if they could keep it, and I encountered plenty of also-ran types who would probably have been laid off in a restructuring under typical American leadership, but they were gainfully employed homeowners in this system. Wearing your uniform, taking part in the rituals of company (tribe, or any in-group) identity – it all makes sense from a historical feudal-dynasty perspective, and it makes sense that it would be pretty antithetical to a liberal American perspective too. If only we could figure out a way to include everyone without forcing some kind of adherence to a group norm!

What made you decide to come home, and did you have any difficulties adjusting to life back at home?

I experienced some of the typical reverse culture shock that expats often observe, where my time abroad/off-planet is incomprehensible to people whose lives have not had the same kind of discontinuity. For me the key has been to connect with people experiencing the same shock, or who have had their own journey to the abyss and come back changed. It’s also a challenge to enjoy an ordinary day where everything is safe and predictable, and requires no struggle to communicate, adapt, devise, stretch – and still try to find opportunity for growth and learning that can keep me as motivated as when I’m trying to understand life in a foreign country.

How has your time abroad influenced your career?

I think the greatest benefit to my career has been my sense (warranted or not) that I can develop and refine the skills I need for any challenge, and find connection with any group or individual, if I have the right motivation.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for the opportunity to meditate on these life experiences!

Photo is by Steve Jurvetson